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Day 4 on the Inca Trail: Sun Gate to Machu Picchu, The Lost City Of The Incas

Machu Picchu, The Lost City of the Inca, reached on Day 4 of the Alpaca Expeditions 26-mile Inca Trail trek © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, with Eric Leiberman and Sarah Falter

Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

We are awakened at 3 am when the Alpaca Expeditions staff bring hot coffee to our tents. We have everything ready for leaving the Wiñaywayna campsite by 3:15 am (I had packed everything the night before and only kept out what I would be taking on the trail), and set out, our bagged breakfast in hand, wearing our headlamps in the dark for the surprisingly short distance walk to the check-in point for Machu Picchu where we wait until it opens at 5:30 am.

Our guide Lizandro Aranzabal Huaman wants us to get up so early to be first on line (he claims to have a 98% success rate) and also to get to the Sun Gate as the sun rises, and to Machu Picchu in time for the first rays to illuminate the scene. In fact, there is only a group of six ahead of us and something like 200 behind us, checking our passport against the list of permits granted for the day.

Somehow, I wind up leading our pack of 15 trekkers and I surprise myself at the pace I set for the one-hour hike on this mostly flat portion of the trail to the Sun Gate. I am in the lead until we get to what Lizandro calls the “Gringo killer”- 50 of the steepest steps – more like a rock climbing wall – where you need to use your hands to crawl up like cat.

Lizandro has prepared us for the fact that the sun only comes through the Sun Gate (Inti Punku) at sunrise on the solstice. But from here, we get our first view of Machu Picchu in the distance (it’s still an hour’s hike away).

One of the many nice aspects of our guides, Lizandro and Georgio, is that they have been patiently  taking individual and group photos of us with our phones and cameras at each of the key spots along the trail, and so we stop at the Sun Gate to take our turn posing for those shots. (Everyone wants to be at this small point for the sunrise, which is why Lizandro wanted us first.)

The first view of Machu Picchu from the famed Sun Gate on the Inca Trail © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

And then we continue (downhill!), from the Sun Gate at 8956 ft. elevation, an hour more to Machu Picchu, descending to 7,873 elevation over the course of three miles from the Wiñaywayna campsite. At the same time, the temperature which had been cold at the highest elevations, becomes warm, even balmy, so we are actually sweating (need sunscreen and hat!) at the site.

The first view of Machu Picchu from the famed Sun Gate on the Inca Trail as dawn breaks © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This part of the Inca trail gives us views that show how Machu Picchu is positioned – we see the entirety of the Lost City (I can only imagine what it was like before it was excavated) and how it is etched amid the contours of the mountain peaks – which is how it was kept hidden from the Spanish when they invaded in 1538 and for 400 years.

The first view of Machu Picchu from the famed Sun Gate on the Inca Trail as dawn breaks © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Literally 10 seconds after I pass a scenic overlook, the sun pokes out. (These views and so much more, are why we take the Inca Trail trek.)

At about 7:40 am, we walk in what seems to be a back entrance into the city, where we are perched on high terraces and the views are the iconic ones of magazines and postcards (and I suspect are not available to the day-trippers who come in from the bottom entrance for the tour). How lucky we are because the sun breaks through, highlighting the structures, for exquisite scenes.

Only 40% of Machu Picchu has been excavated so far, which means that 60% is still underground and hidden from view © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We actually walk down and out of Machu Picchu site to wait for our ticketed time to re-enter (you can only stay 2 ½ hours and can only come in with a guide). While we wait, we have to use the bathroom before we reenter and check bigger backpacks and hiking poles.

We made it! Karen, Sarah and Eric at Machu Picchu at the end of the Alpaca Expeditions four-day, 26-mile Inca Trail trek (photo by Lizandro Aranzabal Huaman)

Our scheduled time to enter Machu Picchu to begin our 2 hour private guided tour with Lizandro is 8:30 am, who leads us on Circuit #4 (there are four different circuits to control crowds) to the highlights: the terraces, Sun Temple, Royal Mausoleum, Palace, Plaza, Sacred Rock.

Machu means “old, ancient, big). Picchu means peak , so Machu Picchu actually means “Ancient Mountain,” but that was not its indigenous name.

Lizandro tells us that it was built in the mid-1400s by Pachacuti, the 9th Incan king but its first emperor, who was the “Alexander the Great” of the Inca, the Empire Builder. Beginning in 1438, he and his son Tupac Yupanqui began a far-reaching expansion that brought much of the modern-day territory of Peru under the ruling Inca family control. He rebuilt Cuzco, built Pisac, Ollantaytambo  and Machu Picchu. He built Machu Picchu up in the mountains, instead of the valley, to be closer to sun, to connect the sky and the earth in one place, as well as for protection.  “Mountains were gods that protected the villages and the animals,” he relates. Almost all of the construction faces east to catch the sunrise – the Inca rulers claimed to be the children of Inti, the Sun God.

The archaeologist Hiram Bingham didn’t discover Machu Picchu (it was discovered in 1902 by Bolivian fortune hunters looking for Incan treasure), but came on an expedition in 1911 in search of Vilcabamba, the last stronghold of the Inca after the Spanish conquest. But Bingham is credited with bringing Machu Picchu to the attention of the world. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Over the next 100 years, the Empire ultimately expanded to what are today six South American countries, connected by 25,000 miles of roads, suspension bridges and trails, and controlling a population as many as 18 million.

The Sun Gate was built as a check point to enter Machu Picchu, but positioned so that on December 22, the summer solstice, the sun beam would come through gate; and on June 21, it comes through the other window.  

Only when you are actually at Machu Picchu can you begin to comprehend what an astonishing construction it is, why it is worthy of being called one of the Seven Wonders of the World and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Machu Picchu is built in two sections – an urban sector has some 200 units of which 172 were homes, and the rest were temples, and a sun dial.

There would have been 700-800 people living here full time – 60% were nobles, the rest were farmers and workers.

Only when you are actually at Machu Picchu can you begin to comprehend the scale of the construction, why it is worthy of being called one of the Seven Wonders of the World and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

How did they build Machu Picchu without slaves, without animals to carry, without a wheel, iron tools, or written language? Consider that China’s Great Wall and the Egyptian pyramids were built with slave labor, draft animals, a wheel, iron tools and written language.

What they had was a culture and a labor system based on principles: Ani – reciprocity – one for all, all for one; Minka – community benefit – vulnerable – collectivity (how the Peruvians got through Covid despite a poor health care system); and Mita – paying taxes by work, labor (not cash) to benefit the whole.

Only when you are actually at Machu Picchu can you begin to comprehend what an astonishing construction it is, why it is worthy of being called one of the Seven Wonders of the World and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It took 50-60 years to build Machu Picchu for Pachacuti, the first Incan Emperor,  who ruled from 1432-1472, but it was never finished. I can’t help but wonder how many men were impressed to build this enormous complex of structures in that amount of time.

When the Spanish invaded in 1538, Machu Picchu was abandoned before it was finished and the Incan forces fell back to arm Vilcabamba, the Inca’s last stronghold. “They promised to come back but didn’t,” Lizandro says.

Our Alpaca Expeditions guide Lizandro Aranzabal Huaman relates the background to Machu Picchu, the Lost City of the Inca © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is mindboggling to contemplate that as complex a construction as what we see, the scale, and the fact that more than 60% is still unexcavated, under 400 years of overgrowth.

The archaeologist Hiram Bingham didn’t discover Machu Picchu (it was discovered in 1902 by Bolivian fortune hunters looking for Incan treasure), but came on an expedition in 1911 in search of Vilcabamba, the last stronghold of the Inca after the Spanish conquest.

“He set up tents at base, met a local to ask where Vilcabamba might be. The man didn’t know, but on July 24 1911, with machete in hand, Bingham had a big surprise: the sight of Machu Picchu took his breath away. Two families were living here, cultivating the terraces two years before Bingham arrived. They were running away from paying taxes to the government.” [Off the grid?]

Only 40% of Machu Picchu has been excavated so far, which means that 60% is still underground and hidden from view © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Bingham returned for a second, then a third expedition. He uncovered eight Inca trails (the Inca destroyed many of the trails to prevent the Spanish from reaching Machu Picchu) and took away artifacts, he claimed, for two years. “More than 100 years later, Yale still has the artifacts and is requiring Peru to build a museum to hold artifacts near Machu Picchu. But Peru wants it by the river. In 2015, the United States sent 11 percent of the artifacts back – but not all were real, some were replicas that they returned. The Peru government wants all of it back.”

The photos Bingham published brought international attention to Machu Picchu, the “Lost City of the Inca” – and tourists. The first tourist following the Inca trail came in 1954 and this Incan Citadel has become the most visited tourist attraction in Peru. The site was named among the New Seven Wonders of the World and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.

Machu Picchu, reached on Day 4 of the Alpaca Expeditions 26-mile Inca Trail trek © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We trekkers follow Circuit 4 (there are four circuits, to spread out the crowds): starting at the Main Gate (where we must present our passports and permit), to the Sun Temple, House of the Inka, the water foundation; Granitic Chaos; Sacred Plaza; Intiwatana Pyramid; Sacred Rock; Three Gates; Water Mirrors; and Condor Temple.

Our Alpaca Expeditions guide Lizandro Aranzabal Huaman points to the astonishing construction of Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We climb the steep stone steps and come to the Sun Temple. It was built as a royal tomb to contain the mummified remains of the king.  Lizandro points to how a temple would have the highest quality building stones and most precise placement and its architecture emphasizes the “harmony between people and nature. They always incorporate the natural bedrock. The windows are aligned for summer and winter solstice – a solar observatory. There are three steps – the Inca triology. The mummified body was placed in the tomb in fetal position.” There are no mummies left in the tomb, but there would have been mummies of the 12 Inca kings (others were buried). On the day of Ayamaki, the mummies would have been paraded from the mausoleum.

The Royal Tomb at Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Lizandro notes that the word ‘jerky” – the dehydrated meat snack – comes from the indigenous Quechua word, “jakky charky” (related to mummification).

We come to the Royal Inca Palace, where we can see that instead of windows (too cold), there would have been shelves for idols. “Bingham got here in time to see some.”

Only when you are actually at Machu Picchu can you begin to comprehend what an astonishing construction it is © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

How would they have set the weighty keystone in place? With ramps, aloe vera to make it slick, he says. The enormous stone building blocks, weighing tons, are trapezoid shape and set at a slight incline angle, for stability against earthquakes. Indeed, Peru suffered two big earthquakes – in 1650 and 1950 – when the colonial buildings collapsed, the great cathedral in Cuzco collapsed, but these structures remained (in fact, the 1950 earthquake in Cuzco unearthed Incan structures). We see under one massive block a roller-shaped stone – a precursor to the wheel.

You only appreciate the scale of Machu Picchu as you haul yourself up the high steep stone steps © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

You only appreciate the scale of Machu Picchu as you haul yourself up the high steep stone steps. The straight lines and perfect angles, the precision, the sheer size and bulk of the stones, and how this entire city is nestled on a plateau amid these sheer mountain peaks.

You only appreciate the scale of Machu Picchu as you haul yourself up the high steep stone steps © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There is a large open area, like a field, which would have been used for festivals, activities, an amphitheater. And in the middle, is what would have been a sundial. In 1978, the then president invited the Spanish King and Queen to visit, and their helicopter landing in the field, broke the sundial. (I find it ironic that the Spanish were still destroying Incan heritage.)

In this small plaza, Lizandro points out a huge section of bedrock cut to mimic the shape of the mountain behind – mountains were considered sacred.

Our Alpaca Expeditions guide Lizandro Aranzabal Huaman points to the precision of the placement of the stone boulders for the temple at Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

He explains a bit of the Incan society hierarchy – the Inca were the royal family and nobles – perhaps 20,000 who ruled over a population of dozens of different tribes totaling as many as 18 million across much of South America. Professionals could become nobles (rise to that privileged class) because of their expertise, skill and function. Teenagers could show a talent and go into a profession.

Can’t help but thinking of architect Antoni Gaudi’s style at Temple of the Condor at Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We sit around for a bit of a rest, and Lizandro explains some of the contemporary politics. Apparently, in the 1990s, President Alberto Fujimori [a fixture in Peru’s politics from 1990 to 2003] wanted to privatize Machu Picchu – selling it off to Chilean investors, drawing an outcry of protests from the people. “The president did well his first five years – investing in industrial farming – but after he was reelected, he sold off or privatized without people knowing.” Fujimori, the son of Japanese immigrants, wound up being investigated for corruption. He tried to flee to Japan and was captured enroute in Santiago with eight suitcases of cash. He was convicted and sentenced to 17 years in prison.”

Lizandro says the Peruvian constitution (which I subsequently read has been rewritten and set aside multiple times since the country’s independence, while the government has undergone a series of coups back and forth from dictatorship to democracy, socialism to capitalism) favors foreign companies (they don’t pay tax). Because 50 percent of Peru’s population lives in Lima, he tells us, the people who live in rural areas, in the mountains, have little say.

The view of Machu Picchu from the top of Huayna Picchu © Sarah Falter/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Several of our group have obtained permits in advance to climb Huayna Picchu – that famous nub of a mountain, like an overlord, in the iconic Machu Picchu images – and Sarah has obtained one, while the rest of us continue touring Machu Picchu with Lizandro.

The steep stone trail to the top of Huayna Picchu © Sarah Falter/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Sarah reports back that the 45-minute hike is extremely arduous – much harder than the Inca Trail hike – almost straight up to a tiny perch at the top, at 8,835 ft., 850 ft. higher than Machu Picchu, where everyone has to take turns for the photo, but you get a famous view of Machu Picchu. The trail was built by the Inca who also built temples and terraces at the top.  “I would definitely recommend it to fitter hikers looking for one last challenge. It’s not super long and being able to see the scale of Machu Picchu from above was really impressive.”

Sarah with other members of our Alpaca Expeditions trek celebrate reaching the Huayna Picchu summit.

We finally come back down to the entrance/exit to Machu Picchu and Lizandro hands us a ticket for the bus that takes us down an extremely winding road to the village of Aguas Calientes. We meet for a last lunch together in a local restaurant – kind of a celebratory meal ( optional and not included). Lizandro gives us our train ticket, departing Aguas Calientes 3:20 pm (you need to take seriously the notice to be on the platform at least 30 minutes ahead of time, which is when the train loads) to Ollantaytambo.

The train is wonderfully vintage, with roof-windows, and very comfortable for the two-hour trip (which for some reason takes us much longer). At Ollantaytambo, we are met by the Alpaca Expeditions bus for the two-hour drive back to Cuzco and drop off back at our hotel.

The train from Aguas Calientes is wonderfully vintage, with roof-windows, and very comfortable for the relaxing two-hour trip to Ollantaytambo © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Candidly, I had been so obsessed about getting passed Day 2, Machu Picchu was more of an end-goal of a quest than the prime attraction – being here means I had gotten over the Dead Woman’s Pass, completed the 26 miles, going as high as nearly 14,000 feet – much as it would have been for the pilgrims who undertook this journey of a lifetime. It is personal.

For me, it is not just a trip of a lifetime but a now or never proposition.

I am not the only one celebrating an important milestone. Indeed, this is the sort of bucket-list trip that warrants a milestone – Peter timed reaching Machu Picchu for his 35th birthday; a couple had just gotten engaged at the start of the hike; another 30-something couple (he’s Italian, she’s Dutch) is on their honeymoon .That’s how special this trek is, embodying physical, spiritual – just as it did for the Inca, a triumph of will and willpower. A test of character then as now.

Eric and Sarah relax on the train after our four-day trek and two-hour tour of Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

You are at the same time amazed by the ability of these people to construct these sites at all, but then wonder at the level of control exerted, the role of religion in maintaining that control and how authoritarians throughout human history use religion (the divine right). No surprise: the Inca kings claimed to be the son of the Sun God, Inti. And yet, you can’t help but marvel at the accomplishment of that government capable of building the 25,000 miles of roads, in producing the amount of food to sustain the population, and unifying a population of 18 million into a society.

You appreciate the social structure that produced these extraordinary mountain villages in a society that did not have slaves nor currency, did not have the wheel or beasts of burden, did not have compass, ruler, alphabet or written language.

Most astonishing, these structures were built within 20, 40 or 60 years’ time – apparently, each chief would select a project to be completed within his own lifetime.

Photos do not do justice, you have to stand next to the rock walls, trace how the boulders link to perfectly together, see the curve at the edge, the inclined angle (for stability against earthquake) with such exquisite precision, hoist yourself up the steep stone steps, look beyond to the distance these boulders would have had to be transported from their quarry.

You stand perched on these terraced structures built into the side of a mountain and simply cannot fathom what it took to build.

All these thoughts come to me as I step, climb, step, climb the trail.

Our Alpaca Expeditions group, at Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

At each site, Lizandro tells us more of the story of the Inca and the society they created – but unlike the sturdy bedrock that these sites were built on, the Inca’s hold on the people was really not that strong because it was not a bond. At a certain point, their hold was by force. “The Inca weren’t very nice people,” he says softly.

What was unexpected was to come away with an understanding of the limits of authoritarian control. Indeed, the Inca ruled for less than 400 years, but the empire existed only for a century before it was toppled, too weak and lacking support of the people, to withstand the Spanish invaders. There are lessons for day.  And as we learn, Peru is still going through these cycles of economic struggle, political ping-pong between dictatorship and democracy, socialism and capitalism, since becoming independent from Spain in 1821. The more things change, the more they stay the same, may well be the lasting lesson.

Alpaca Expeditions offers many ways to get to experience Machu Picchu – the trek is its own experience, and when you think about it, is very inexpensive (from $650); it’s not even that difficult or expensive an airfare to reach (at this stage, you fly through Lima or Quito to Cuzco, but a new international airport is being built closer to Cuzco). The tour company also offers many different programs – like the Sacred Valley excursions – to different areas.

The permits to do the Inca Trail trek are limited to 500 a day for all the trekking companies (which includes 200 for trekkers and 300 for porters and staff) and get booked up months in advance.

More information: Alpaca Expeditions, USA Phone: (202)-550-8534, info@alpacaexpeditions.com, raulmanager@alpacaexpeditions.com, https://www.alpacaexpeditions.com/

See also:

VISIT TO PERU’S SACRED VALLEY IS BEST WAY TO PREPARE FOR INCA TRAIL TREK TO MACHU PICCHU

INCAN SITES OF PISAC, OLLANTAYTAMBO IN PERU’S SACRED VALLEY ARE PREVIEW TO MACHU PICCHU

ALPACA EXPEDITIONS’ INCA TRAIL TREK TO MACHU PICCHU IS PERSONAL TEST OF MIND OVER MATTER

DAY 1 ON THE INCA TRAIL TO MACHU PICCHU: A TEST

DAY 2 ON THE INCA TRAIL TO MACHU PICCHU: DUAL CHALLENGES OF DEAD WOMAN´S PASS,
RUNCURACCAY

DAY 3 ON THE INCA TRAIL TO MACHU PICCHU: TOWN IN THE CLOUDS, TERRACES OF THE SUN
& FOREVER YOUNG

DAY 4 ON THE INCA TRAIL: SUN GATE TO MACHU PICCHU, THE LOST CITY OF THE INCAS

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Day 3 on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu: Town in the Clouds, Terraces of the Sun & Forever Young

Wiñaywayna is the most spectacular Inca site on the trail after Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, with Eric Leiberman and Sarah Falter

Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

On our third morning on the Inca Trail, we are wakened at 5 am at our tents in the Chaquiccocha campsite to be packed up, have breakfast at 5:30 am and out by 6:30 am to begin what is generally considered the most relaxed day of the four-day trek, when our Alpaca Expeditions group will hike 6.2 miles mostly downhill, and visit two Incan sites, Phuyupatamarka (Town in the Clouds) and Intipata (Terraces of the Sun), before reaching the campsite, where, we are told, a special activity awaits.

I’m still on a high from surviving Day 2 and the dual challenges of Dead Woman’s Pass and Runkuracay Pass, so I feel I can handle anything (and not just on this trek).

It’s a foggy morning and before setting out, Lizandro organizes all of us in a great circle with the porters and staff and guests (Giorgio calls “family” and Lizandro calls “team” and both are true in the way we have bonded) so we meet each other. We learn that the porters all come from one mountain village, that two are brothers, 62 and 68 years old, that one of the porters is a woman (very unusual, but Alpaca Expeditions has made an effort to recruit women).

Getting to know you: Alpaca Expeditions porters and staff and trekkers introduce ourselves © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Each of the trekkers introduce ourselves, as well, and I mention that today is my 71st birthday – mentioning it because I am pretty pleased with the achievement (and our guide, Giorgio, at one point guessed I was 55 – perhaps just being polite) – to emphasize that they have made this an experience of a lifetime possible for me.

Alpaca Expeditions’ “Green Machine” porters and staff who make our Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu – a trip of a lifetime for many – possible © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We hike for 2 hours along what they call “Inca flat” (gradual inclines) and begin to enter the jungle, known as the Cloud Forest. As we walk, we have the opportunity to see Salkantay, the second highest snow-capped mountain in the Sacred Valley, and get glimpses of a fantastic panoramic view of the Vilcabamba mountain range through mist and clouds.

One of the fun sections of the Inca Trail goes through a small cave © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Towards the end of the Inca flats, we begin to make our way up to the last peak and our third pass, Phuyupatamarka (Temple Above the Clouds) at 12,073 ft. from where we have great views overlooking the Urubamba River.  Down the valley, we get our first view of Machu Picchu Mountain, but the famous “Lost City” itself is still hidden from view.

From Phuyupatamarka it´s a 3-hour walk down a flight of steps to our last campsite and the grand finale for this day, exploring the Incan site of Wiñaywayna (Forever Young).

On the descent, we stop in a small cave, and just as the pilgrims did 600 years ago as they came closer to Machu Picchu, the religious center, Lizandro uses this site, the Temple Above the Clouds, to discuss religious beliefs and practices at the time of the Inca.

Exploring the Incan site of Phuyupatamarka © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This would have been one of the religious sites where pilgrims would be able to show their devotion and purify themselves before they reached Machu Picchu. It could have been a place of offerings, a ritual shower, of sacrifice (animals, Lizandro says, not humans, which he says would happen only rarely).

At the time of the Inca and thousands of years before, the many different tribes were polytheists, worshipping many gods mostly associated with Nature. They believed that nature, man and the Pachamama (Mother Earth), lived in harmony and perpetual interrelationship. The Inca state promoted the worship of a creator god (Wiracocha), sun god (Inti), Moon Goddess (Mamaquilla), thunder god (Illapa) and Earth Mother (Pachamama), and a host of other supernatural entities. But the ruling Inca established Inti, the sun god, as the most important (the first Incan king declared himself to be the son of Inti, to establish his divine power and authority).

Eric takes in the dramatic landscape along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Lizandro points to a trinity that organizes the belief system: “The Inca thought three lives (past, present and future) ran parallel – one underneath (past), one above (future). They divided the world in three dimensions, three stages of life, which they depicted with animals – the condor (the heavens), the puma (the middle world of earth), and the snake (the underworld).

The snake represents knowledge, wisdom; because everything known is from past; the puma represents strength, energy; the condor connects this world to next world because it could touch heaven and carry heavy things, he says. “The Inca saw life as a circle, not a line, so life never ends. They believed life is reborn and when they were buried, they were placed in fetal position pointing to the sun and mountains; rulers were mummified and their mummified remains taken and paraded around one day a year. Children didn’t inherit property – people were buried with their belongings (for next life). Machu Picchu would have taken more than a lifetime to build, but the Emperor Pachacuti believed he wouldn’t enjoy it in this world, but the next.”

And the linchpin to it all, the basis for the Inca emperor’s power and authority, was religious faith.

So, while the Inca did not have slaves, they had a system of labor, whereby the men would give two to three months of service to the rulers (the first Incan Emperor, Pachacútec, the Alexander the Great of the Inca, had them build Machu Picchu, Pisac, Ollantaytambo and the various palaces and temples, and gave 50 percent of what they harvested to the nobles and the priests out of religious devotion.  And the people were kept ignorant – only the nobles and priests were educated.

He says there would have been six water fountains here – so people could take a ritual shower “to purify mind and body before going to Machu Picchu.” He also points to a sacrificial rock.

There appears to be an altar carved into the bedrock facing sunrise.

We have about 45 minutes of a steep downward hike before it levels off again.

The Incan site of Intipata, Terraces of the Sun, one of the sites that would have served the pilgrims and nobles on their way to Machu Picchu and were abandoned for 400 years before being discovered by archaeologists © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We come to an Incan site, Intipata (Terraces of the Sun) that interestingly, overlooks our final campsite waaaay down the mountain. Lizandro points out what would have been a platform for sacrifice. “Not for human. That would be rare” indicating that it would take place only in extreme circumstances, like a famine and would be mainly girls 11 and 13 years old who belonged to Cuzco noble families who were told they were born to be sacrificed as offerings to stop a national disaster. He describes one instance when the king sacrificed his daughter. (I’ll bet it was a period of famine, because they needed to reduce population to keep in balance.) The sacrificed were given fresh vegetable hallucinogenic flower to eat. “They offered them not death, but life.”

Llama at Intipata. “The Llama represents spiritual life and the black llama, a symbol of material life, would be sacrificed,” our Alpaca Expeditions guide, Lizandro, tells us © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

More typically, it was a llama that would be sacrificed. “The Llama represents spiritual life and the black llama, a symbol of material life, would be sacrificed.”

At Intipata, a boulder that would have been used as a platform for ritual sacrifice © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Inca did not have a written alphabet, yet they had to figure ways to communicate across distances – to alert the villages along the Inca Trail when the king was coming, when enemies approached. They did it using runners – sometimes in relays (they could do the 26 mile distance we did in four days’ hike in four hours), using conch trumpets. Also, the patterns and colors of their clothing would identify who they were, what tribe, and so, whether friend or foe.

Terraces at Intipata. The scale is mind-blowing © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

But they also had a system of colored strings and knots, called quipu, that recorded and relayed information, which he shows us as an example. Lizandro says (not disguising a sense of resentment) that only a few of these quipu have survived but some 1500 of them have been taken to foreign museums (in fact, most of what the archeologists have taken from the Incan sites have yet to be returned).

(I imagine that the quipu could be read like Morse code and while they did not have an alphabet, the code was probably based on mathematics- perhaps a computer could decipher?)

Getting set for our Alpaca Expeditions cooking class activity © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

At the end of our third day hike – relatively short and easy (it doesn’t feel like five hours!), we get into camp at 1 pm and Lizandro tells us to look forward to an “activity” – a cooking class, where Chef Mario shows us how to cook a popular Peruvian dish, lomas latudo. We get chef’s hats and aprons and the platters of ingredients – beef, red pepper, tomatoes, onions, yellow pepper, ginger, garlic, vinegar, soy sauce, salt, pepper, cilantro, oil to fry potato (served with French fries and rice) – which we learn how to properly cut, dice, stir and sauté – before enjoying our handiwork for lunch.

Chef Mario leads a cooking demonstration © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Later in the afternoon, after time to relax, we walk a surprisingly short distance (less than 10 minutes) along a trail from our campsite to one of the most impressive Incan villages of all, Wiñaywayna, and (unlike when we go to Machu Picchu the next day) we have it almost to ourselves to explore.

Eric demonstrates the tossing technique during our Alpaca Expeditions cooking class © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Wiñaywayna is the most spectacular Inca site on the trail after Machu Picchu and the most popular campsite because of its proximity to Machu Picchu.

Winawayna, one of the most impressive archaeological sites along the Inca Trail, was named ”Forever Young” because of the blooming orchids found there © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Winawayna was discovered by a local archaeologist in 1942 who was there excavating different site, Chamchabamba, and found it hidden under dense vegetation and cloud forest and amazingly, they found orchid flowers growing on the wall. Lizandro explains that Peru has 435 species orchids, but they mostly bloom early or at the end rainy season, some bloom only  every 4-5 years or for only one day year, opening at sunrise and dying at sunset, but the ones found here bloom year round, which is why they named the site, Winawayna  – Forever Young – for the orchid. (If Dead Woman’s Pass, thankfully, did not prove prescient for me, perhaps Forever Young on this, my birthday?)

Wiñaywayna is the most spectacular Inca site on the trail after Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We explore the site, climbing up and down the steep stone steps, walking through the corridors, really getting into the architecture and engineering, the logistics, as if the people left only yesterday. You realize these ruins were buried under overgrowth for 400 years and can only marvel at what was involved in the archeological excavation so that we can appreciate it today.

Wiñaywayna is the most spectacular Inca site on the trail after Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Most of the Inca sites have yet to be uncovered and are still buried, and the ones that we do see have only been partially excavated. Indeed, only about 40 percent of Machu Picchu has been excavated.

We go through a room with three walls and big windows which, Lizandro tells us, means it was a storage room – the windows provided ventilation for better preservation of the supplies, while homes had no windows because it would be too cold; instead, there are spaces in the walls where they would put idols for decoration.

Wiñaywayna is remarkably intact so you can see how the homes, storage rooms and temple were constructed © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We see what would have been a watch tower. There would have been guards with weapons at the ready to protect Machu Picchu – like sling shots (a rope of wool with a bag in the middle with rocks),  arrows, lances, spears, hatchets – fine for use against another tribe, but fairly useless against the weapons the Spanish invaders wielded. The guard would have been able to recognize if someone coming was friend or foe by the colors and design of their clothes.

Seven windows arranged on a curve in the temple at Winawayna © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The temple here has three different architectural styles, which Lizandro says shows it was built by different generations and different engineers. A wall of this temple has seven windows that look out to the peak, arranged in a curve. The round shape was to reflect the sun, to provide different places to observe sun, like a sun dial. The seven windows are homage to the Seven Sister stars of the Pleiades.

Appreciating the terraces – an agricultural laboratory to determine the best methods at different levels of elevation – and how Winawayna was built into these steep cliffs of the Andes Mountains © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The terraces here at Wiñaywayna were Inca laboratories – narrow and concave to follow the curves of the mountain, every seven levels is a different ecology, using granite and quartz to absorb heat from the sun to keep plants from freezing overnight. “The Inca realized that elevations produced better potato and corn adapted to altitude.”

This site, along with the others purposely abandoned in 1538 with the Spanish conquest.

The first Spanish expedition, in 1532, had only 167. “They were invaders, not explorers.  They came to destroy the culture, the civilization. They took gold and silver and brought disease,” Lizandro says. The population at the time of the Inca was as high as 18 million before the Spanish.

Appreciating the terraces – an agricultural laboratory to determine the best methods at different levels of elevation – and how Winawayna was built into these steep cliffs of the Andes Mountains © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Machu Picchu and the other sites were built at the same time in the mid 1400s, over a period of about 60 years. Less than 100 years later, the population started decreasing– the human ecologist in me can’t help but wonder if the massive building projects and empire building didn’t take its toll on the population.

“European diseases came even before the Spaniards came. Cortez brought disease to the Mayans, and the Mayans, trying to flee the Spaniards by going south, carried the diseases to Inca along the same network of roads the Inca used to conquer and unify its empire. The 12th Incan king, Huayna Cápac (it is believed) died in 1525 from smallpox and there was no king to follow.”

He says that it is wrong to think of an Incan civilization, rather than an Incan ruler and ruling family of perhaps 20,000 that dominated a population that ranged in size from 10 to 20 million.  “When he passed away, he was mummified to continue guiding.” Because the Incan ruler could have as many concubines as he wanted, Huayna Cápac likely had 500 children throughout the kingdom, but only three who were sons of the Queen, were in line to be king. Two of the brothers were fighting a civil war for control at the time the Spanish came to Cuzco in 1533.

They saw amazing gold, silver – a city of gold – buildings covered in gold, a temple that had life-sized animals of gold. The Spaniards melted them to make coins. Then the Spanish king sent more soldiers.”

The view through the temple at Winawayna © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Incan kingdom, weakened by civil war and not exactly supported by the masses they had subjugated for a century, abandoned this place to protect Machu Picchu, which was holy to them, like the Vatican. Machu Picchu was hidden amid the mountain peaks. To protect it from the Spanish invaders, the Inca destroyed the trails that led to Machu Picchu, and ultimately, abandoned Machu Picchu as well, making a last stand at Vilcabamba.

“The Inca weren’t the nicest to build such a civilization. For 100 years, they had to kill to control, so not all people were happy, so they didn’t help the Inca against the Spanish,” Lizandro says.

None of these grand projects were ever finished, which is more understandable than if they were completed.

We have as much time as we want to explore until darkness begins to fall because we can just stroll back to the campsite.

When we sit down to dinner, Chef Mario presents me with the most amazing birthday cake I have ever had in my life – completely decorated. It took him three hours to prepare it with the camping equipment he cooks with. I share the cake with Peter who timed his Machu Picchu ascent for his 35th birthday the next morning.

Lizandro then asks us what time we would like to wake up in order to get to the check point to Machu Picchu before the other 200 trekkers who will be on line: “3 am? No? Then 3:01,” he says, noting that he has a 98% success rate in being first in line for the checkpoint when it opens at 5:30 am. The check point is only about 10 minutes walk from the campsite. Why so important to be first? Well, to get to the Sun Gate by sunrise, and before the small space gets jammed crammed with people all elbowing to get the best views and photos.

Tomorrow is the day we will reach the goal of our trek: Machu Picchu.

The permits to do the Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu are limited to 500 a day for all the trekking companies (which includes 200 for trekkers and 300 for porters and staff) and get booked up months in advance.

More information: Alpaca Expeditions, USA Phone: (202)-550-8534, info@alpacaexpeditions.com, raulmanager@alpacaexpeditions.com, https://www.alpacaexpeditions.com/

Next: Day 4 on the Inca Trail – Machu Picchu!

See also:

VISIT TO PERU’S SACRED VALLEY IS BEST WAY TO PREPARE FOR INCA TRAIL TREK TO MACHU PICCHU

INCAN SITES OF PISAC, OLLANTAYTAMBO IN PERU’S SACRED VALLEY ARE PREVIEW TO MACHU PICCHU

ALPACA EXPEDITIONS’ INCA TRAIL TREK TO MACHU PICCHU IS PERSONAL TEST OF MIND OVER MATTER

DAY 1 ON THE INCA TRAIL TO MACHU PICCHU: A TEST

DAY 2 ON THE INCA TRAIL TO MACHU PICCHU: DUAL CHALLENGES OF DEAD WOMAN´S PASS, RUNCURACCAY

DAY 3 ON THE INCA TRAIL TO MACHU PICCHU: TOWN IN THE CLOUDS, TERRACES OF THE SUN & FOREVER YOUNG

DAY 4 ON THE INCA TRAIL: SUN GATE TO MACHU PICCHU, THE LOST CITY OF THE INCAS

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